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''Friday Night Lights'': Fumble!

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Bill Records

”Friday Night Lights”: Fumble!

Hi. Remember me? Probably not. And I don’t blame you. After all, it’s been a few weeks since my last Glutton column. Excuses? Oh, I’ve got tons of them. For one, I’ve been busy working on other things. Secondly, Glutton video producer extraordinaire Jason Averett was busy out at Sundance, and then editing together my on-location Survivor video blogs (shameless plug alert!). In fact, he’s been so busy, we still haven’t had time to shoot the latest ”Five” video, so you’re getting ripped off even more by only getting a mini-column of sorts this week. Anyhoo, I’m back. But if you feel this column to be lacking in both inspiration and execution, I am merely following the lead of this week’s column subject — Friday Night Lights.

Now before you start sending nasty e-mails calling me all sorts of vile names, let me remind you what a supporter I have been of this program. Last spring I wrote an entire column practically begging NBC to renew the show for a second season. Granted, part of the reason I campaigned for its return was because my wife threatened to kick me out of the house if it didn’t, but still, I was a big supporter.

One thing that happens when you are a fan of a show is you often tend to overlook its shortcomings. Unfortunately, FNL‘s second season has been full of missteps that simply cannot be ignored. It started with the awful — awful! — decision to turn Landry and Tyra’s relationship into a Lifetime movie of the week. A stalker attacks Tyra! Landry defends her honor! Things get out of control! A murder! A cover-up! Puh-leeze! For a show that prides itself on subtlety, this melodramatic twist was just plain embarrassing. Almost as embarrassing as having a character named The Swede.

We could forgive these early problems, and when those storylines ended, we assumed we were heading back on the right track, but the fumbles just keep on coming. An episode a few weeks back featured former jailbird-turned-Dillon Panther Santiago stopped on his way to practice by an old ex-con buddy. Right as it happened, I paused the episode, looked at my wife, and said the following:

”I’ve seen this plot device a million times on a million shows. Here’s what’s going to happen. The prison buddy is going to try to get the newly reformed Santiago to go back to his old ways. Santiago will resist, saying he is now on the straight and narrow. The prison buddy will then accuse him of selling out and ditching all his former friends. Santiago will worry about his street cred, so then will decide to hang out with them. Eventually, the prison buddy will do something bad, and Santiago will have to make a choice whether to go down that old road or follow his new path, even if it means turning on his friends. He will choose the latter, he and the former prison buddy will mix it up somehow, and by the end of the hour the entire storyline will be over and done and wrapped up with a nice pretty bow on top.”

And wouldn’t you know it, that is exactly what happened.

No, I cannot see the future. But I can see the past. This whole plot device felt straight out of a very special episode of Punky Brewster on the dangers of peer pressure. I’m not sure which is worse — the fact that it was so easy to telegraph and predict, or the fact that it played out all in one episode. Developments like this used to build slowly, much like they do in real life. That was the whole appeal of Friday Night Lights when it first came on — its realism and subtlety. This episode felt more like a procedural drama like CSI or Law & Order, where your beginning, middle, and end are all crammed into 40 minutes and never spoken of again.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. I’m referring, of course, to this past week’s episode, when Matt Saracen, out of nowhere, went all bad-boy on us. Apologists will claim that Saracen’s rage was boiling over because of all the people that had abandoned him in his life — his father, then Coach Taylor, then Julie, then his girlfriend/mother’s caretaker. Fine, but this show is all about characters, and not for one second do I believe that — without any prior warnings — sweetie-boy Matt would overnight turn into a grade-A jerk. The ridiculousness started with him calling his teacher a bitch — repeatedly. That sound like Saracen to you? Next thing we know, QB1 was skipping school to pound beer with Riggins, and showing up to practice wasted. The cheesiest bit of all actually had him contemplating buying a motorcycle — because nothing spells ”cliché bad boy” better than a bike. I half expected him to put on some shades and utter ”I’ll be back” before peeling off into the Texas dustbowl. It was the most nonsensical, out-of-character activity since cool, calm, and collected Curtis on 24 all of a sudden went haywire and made Jack Bauer put a bullet in his brain. I hate when shows come up with twists for characters that make no sense whatsoever.

The whole thing just seemed a lazy, dumbed-down version of the Friday Night Lights we all fell in love with. No nuance. No subtlety. Just cliché after cliché. Second seasons can be tough on serialized dramas. Just look at Heroes. And remember Desperate Housewives‘ sophomore outing revolving around some dude being locked in a basement? Thankfully, that show rebounded. Hopefully, Friday Night Lights will as well.

I also can’t help but wonder if these saucier self-contained storylines are a direct result of network interference. Ratings-wise, FNL had no business getting renewed for a second season. I have to believe that at some point the suits at NBC said something to the effect of ”Look, we’re going to bring you back, but here’s what’s going to happen: You need to come with some bigger, splashier stories. And enough with the slow-building plotlines. We want action! And then resolution. Every hour.” The sad irony is that making the show more mainstream has not resulted in more viewers, even when taking on repeats because of the strike. Last Friday’s original FNL episode attracted only 5.6 million viewers, getting sacked by an old episode of House.

I do want to make something perfectly clear. Friday Night Lights has not turned into a bad show. I still dig the characters, and find the relationship between Coach Taylor and wife Tami to be the most satisfying on television. But it has gone from a great drama to merely a good one. Here’s hoping the Dillon Panthers have one more good comeback in them.

NEXT PAGE: A DVD sparks Dalton’s obsession with old-school videogames. Plus: reader mail!

OBSESSION OF THE WEEK

The amount of hours I spent as a child in front of the Atari 2600 is just obscene. Often I think back and curse myself for wasting away my youth with a joystick in my hand (not that kind of joystick, sickos!). But more often I think about what a rad time that was, and how much I miss the innocent joy that a game of Dig Dug could inspire. At least I (for the most part) have moved on with my life. A new DVD, The King of Kong, profiles some chaps who weren’t so fortunate. Profiling a battle to record the world’s highest-ever Donkey Kong score, this documentary takes you inside the bizarre world of retro videogame competitions. Why would anyone care about getting the high number on a 25-year-old videogame? Well, I still have no idea, but it’s a very big deal to a very small group of people, and the King of Kong producers do a fine job of showing us this world without openly mocking it. That’s not to say you won’t laugh your ass off. In fact, check out the movie, and I guarantee you will.

READER MAIL

If it was revealed that the characters on American Gladiators were on steroids, would you even care? That was the question posed in the last Glutton column. And you all answered, as well as offered up some thoughts on the most bizarre TV show of all time and an old Glutton friend. On to the mailbag!

As an avid pro-wrestling watcher, I can say that the guys from American Gladiators have to be on steroids to look better than some of my WWE faves…. Titan seems like a nice guy, it would be a shame if he went all Chris Benoit on some poor contestant. But I don’t care too much. — Rob Grizzly

That appears to be the tone of most of the e-mails that came in: People seem to suspect that the Gladiators are on the juice, but couldn’t care less. Maybe they should stage a special Celebrity ‘Roids edition and have only people whose names have been linked to the juice: Canseco, Rodney Harrison, Marion Jones. Good times!

Dalton, if you are really concerned about steroid use, perhaps you should watch Ben Affleck’s star-making turn in the Life Stories: Families in Crisis episode titled ”A Body to Die For: The Aaron Henry Story.” Affleck gets all ‘roid-ragey and mouths off to his friends and family (most notably his coach, played by Ernie Hudson). I can’t remember now if it was for or against steroid use, but it sure was entertaining. —Dave Archer

I love the concept of Affleck on ‘roids! That movie sounds almost as awesome as when Rob Lowe had to confront becoming a teenage dad in the ultimate After School Special, Schoolboy Father, only to learn that, jeez, having a baby is really, really hard. They poop a lot and you can’t go party with your friends or anything!

I need to give you props for choosing Cop Rock as the most bizarre TV show of all time. I worked at the Library of Congress last summer and, after trying to explain it to all my coworkers, dragged them to the Motion Picture Division to try to watch the episodes the Library keeps in its records (to protect future networks from making the same mistakes?). However, I discovered not only can you not access the episodes with an employee pass, you need specific written authorization that you need it for research to have access to the tapes. Dalton, any explanations on why the U.S. government would make Cop Rock such a closely guarded secret? —Ali Curran

Because it’s a matter of freakin’ national security, Ali! Seriously, are we ready as a nation to be mocked by the rest of the world? They say that only sticks and stones can break bones, but — as someone who was called ”Dolphin” for a good part of my adolescence — I can attest that names do hurt. Our country’s morale is already low enough what with the slumping economy and war in Iraq. Do we really want to air our dirty laundry all over the globe by trotting out Cop Rock? Is that what you want, Ali? Is it? You really want to give North Korea more ammunition against us by showing them that we make TV shows that feature a crack-addict mommy tenderly serenading her baby before selling it for $200? Well, I think that’s just un-American.

The dude who lip-synced ”We Are the World” was Boston comedian Kevin Meaney. You probably remember him as the TV version of Uncle Buck. Or maybe not. Oh wait, I forgot who I was talking to…of course you remember the TV version of Uncle Buck! Anyway, here’s a YouTube vid of Kevin Meaney doing ”We Are the World”:

Wow, that is the unfunniest YouTube clip I’ve seen in a long, long time.

So Kevin O’Connell is up for his 20th nomination. Are you starting the Oscar campaign again this year? —Laura Hill

You know it! Faithful readers may remember my first ever Glutton Oscar Endorsement last year, for 19-time Oscar runner-up Kevin O’Connell. Nineteen just didn’t feel right, though. Twenty is a much nicer, rounder number. Plus, last year, O’Connell was up against Dreamgirls, and one couldn’t help but feel that it being a musical helped it in the category of Sound Mixing, and O’Connell’s nom for Apocalypto may have been tainted by Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant. Now, I haven’t seen Transformers yet, but I have no doubt that there are many different robotic explosions that are mixed to perfection. I’ll drop Kevin a line and get his thoughts on the upcoming ceremony. This is the year, people!

What are your thoughts on season 2 of Friday Night Lights? What’s your favorite ’80s videogame? Have a less funny YouTube clip to share than Kevin Meaney’s? Send your questions, comments, and quibbles to theglutton@ew.com, or just fill out the handy-dandy form below. See you next week!

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